This is the story of another Oklahoman who made good in the tough world of horseracing.
Congenial, authentic and forthright, this former jockey sits and relates his story with clarity and an unimpaired memory. Not bad, considering Roy Brooks will turn 72 years old Aug. 1. When he was 69 years old, he won the Heritage Place Derby (Remington Park, Okla.) and repeated a victory in that same race a year later.
So what kept this age-less jockey going? It couldn’t have been money because he owns a couple of farms in Blanchard, Oklahoma, totaling 700 acres. It couldn’t have been to win a record-number of races because he never kept track of them and there are few, if any, records before 1970 (when the AQHA started keeping an accounting). So what kept him in the hunt?
“I guess I’m just a competitive person that enjoyed the contention,” Brooks said.
By Brooks’ recollection he didn’t begin as a jockey until he was 24 or 25 years old.
“I was fortunate, though,” he said. “My family (in Blanchard) had good horses and I grew up on a farm and raised cattle.”
Brooks rode his first race in 1967 at Greer Downs in Mangum, Oklahoma.
“When I first started as a jockey, I didn’t enjoy it much,” the Hall of Fame race rider said. “In the beginning I got $5 a ride and at that time you had to find the owner to get your money.
“If you rode for 10 or more owners that’s how many you had to track down.”
During his formative years, Brooks raced mostly at Oklahoma tracks like Blue Ribbon Downs, Sallisaw, Okla.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Ten years ago, Roy Brooks suffered a broken ankle on the first day of Remington Park’s quarter horse racing meet. Surely, his fellow jockeys reasoned, such an injury would cause the track’s oldest rider to retire to his central Oklahoma ranch.
“Didn’t happen,” Brooks said. “I thought that I needed to prove myself one more time, that I could come back from an injury like that.”
To this day, Brooks — who will turn 66 on Aug. 1 — remains one of Remington Park’s top jockeys, finishing in second place in the standings during the just-completed meet with 48 wins on 324 mounts.
His longevity in a profession in which injury or physical ailments claim many careers and few riders are able to remain competitive past their mid-50s has won Brooks scores of admirers in the industry.
“I tell him every chance I get that he’s my hero, and I mean that,” said fellow jockey G.R. Carter, the Oklahoma City’s track’s perennial leading rider. “It’s so cool that he’s doing what he’s doing at that age, and especially doing it at the level he’s doing it.
“It’s not like he’s just a token figure that’s just around for the hell of it. You have to do your best to beat him or he’ll beat you. He takes no prisoners.”
As Brooks tells it, his riding career began quite by accident, when he thought that he could do a better job than other jockeys were doing riding a horse of which he was a part-owner. Brooks won his first career race, aboard Star Lady Bruce in 1967 at long-gone Greer Downs in Mangum, but not before some adventure.
“I lost both stirrups and still won the race,” he said. “I don’t know how I kept from falling off. I was so cotton-mouthed I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t spit, nothing. I was scared to death.”
Brooks rode at obscure Oklahoma “brush tracks” through the early 1970s, long before the state legalized pari-mutuel wagering. Thanks in part to family ties — Brooks’ cousin, Jack Brooks, is considered the top quarter horse trainer of all time — he was able to ride a few races at La Mesa Park in New Mexico, then a more prominent track than the ones in Oklahoma.
“Riding kinfolk can get to be a problem, because (others) get to think you’re showing favoritism,” Jack Brooks said. “I had to kind of watch it, but (Roy) had as much talent as some of the others … His work ethic has always been so good. Being a good rider, he works so hard at it. That’s what makes him so successful.”
From La Mesa Park, Roy Brooks jumped to Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, one of quarter horse racing’s premier tracks. For 15 years, he rode some of the nation’s best quarter horses, but he was about ready to give up riding when Remington Park opened in 1988 in Oklahoma City, about 35 miles from his ranch in rural Blanchard.
The chance to ride again in his home state rejuvenated his spirits, he said. He’s never won a riding title at Remington Park — although he’s consistently been near the top of the standings at Oklahoma’s largest track — but he has won three at Fair Meadows in Tulsa, which on June 7 started its annual race meet.
“I can go home and rest up and come back and ride,” he said. “I don’t have to go very far … and I can keep my farming operation going.
“I don’t have any problems with my health, just an achy back and stuff like that. Old age is creeping up on me but it doesn’t bother me. … I can ride 10 races (a night) and it doesn’t bother me at all.”
Neither Equibase nor The Jockeys’ Guild keep records on such things, but it’s safe to say jockeys 60 and over are rare. Besides Brooks, there’s Richard Rettele of Northville, Mich., who will turn 67 on Aug. 8. Rettele rides quarter horses, but said he doesn’t have near as many mounts as does Brooks.
The oldest rider ever to win a thoroughbred race in the U.S. is Frank Amonte Sr., who did so at age 69 at Suffolk Downs on Aug. 10, 2005. He later won a race at Northampton Fair in Massachusetts that Sept. 4, a day before his 70th birthday. This January, at 71, he became the oldest jockey ever to ride in a race in New York.
Rettele and Brooks met when Rettele rode one of his occasional races in Oklahoma and the two became friends, in part because of their unique status.
“We always argue about who’s going to quit first,” Rettele said. “But as long as you’re healthy and you’re sound, there is no reason to quit, especially when you’re competing well.”
Through June 7, Brooks had won 1,412 races since 1972, when the American Quarter Horse Association began keeping records.
“He is one of the great stories in racing, because the guy is 65 and still excelling at a very tough and dangerous athletic event,” said Remington Park general manager Scott Wells, a former trainer who has used Brooks as a rider. “I’ve never heard of anyone that rides the amount of horses he rides and has the success he has at his age.”
Brooks said he thought seriously about retiring in 2003, when his friend, paint horse trainer Lewis Wartchow, died, but then a quarter horse trainer, Luis Villafranco, began using Brooks on his top horses. As this year’s Remington Park meet wound down, Brooks acknowledged that he doesn’t know how much longer he plans to ride, although he’d like one more shot at winning quarter horse racing’s biggest event, the All American Futurity, in which he’s 0-for-6.
“I think it’s something to be proud of,” Roy Brooks said of his longevity in the saddle. “I don’t gloat about it … it doesn’t bother me for (other jockeys) to call me ‘old man’ or ‘grandpa.’ They do that a lot.”
Brooks said that when Jack Brooks retired earlier this year, he thought back to an informal agreement the two had to retire together. Jack Brooks said he reminded his cousin of that agreement.
“He told me, ‘The money is still too good.’ But there will come a time when he decides that it’s time to retire,” Jack Brooks said.
But if at least one person has his way, Roy Brooks will delay retirement for a few more years. His grandson, 18-year-old Cameron Brooks, wants to earn his riding license, so that he can join his grandfather and his father, Jimmy Brooks, who also is a Remington Park regular.
Mention the possibility to Wells, and his eyes light up at the marketing possibilities.
“We would love to host the first three-generation jockey competition,” Wells said. “That would be a lot of fun.”